20 September, 2009

THE FOREIGN HAND

SUSHMA JOSHI
Kathmandu Post

20 September: As a student in the USA, I became used to meeting with Nepalis “sponsored” by American friends. These folks, usually from remote villages, harbored a complex mixture of emotions—sadness at their lot in life, gratitude at their friends (and sometimes a sense of entitlement), hidden annoyance at the often unsubtle ways in which their poverty was pointed out to them, anger at perceived derision of their culture, friction over longterm relationships in which the balance of economic equality never got any better. There were moves to become independent, and sudden cut-offs of relationships that resumed again after long periods of time. Amongst all this, there were lifelong commitments that mirrored family relationships--some more spectacularly dysfunctional than others.

The sense of getting a free ride from rich Americans would almost inevitably give way to a sense of responsibility as people realized, after a year or two in New York, that their rich sponsors did not have unlimited pockets but were actually hardworking, middle class Americans with bills to pay.

What struck me about these relationships was the way in which people put complete faith in their sponsors. They had no doubt their friends would provide education or healthcare, or whatever else their friends were offering at that point (perhaps a yearly visa which allowed them to work on a garden in upstate New York, perhaps a chance to migrate to Switzerland and work in a Swiss chalet during the season.) What also struck me was the suspicion with which they often viewed middle class, professional Nepalis from the cities. Clearly, middle class Nepalis did not care for their welfare or concerns. Given a choice, they would take the Americans over the rich Nepalis any day.

Over and over, whether these folks needed a citizenship certificate filed or a child registered in a school, I would hear them say: “the government officials won’t listen to us. We are poor people from the villages. They will listen to Kathmandu people, but they won’t listen to us.” And each time they said this, the Americans would hear them and say: “How can this situation get better?” The Americans were interested in solving this situation. The Nepalis were not.

This, it seems, is the crux of the matter. Why are the “foreign hands” so powerful in Nepal? Is it because they have the money and can dictate the terms of the work to be done in Nepal? Or is it because they simply care more about the people—and this caring by itself gives them a legitimacy that no money can buy? Are they, in other words, more responsible to the constituency of Nepali citizens, designing everything from old age security pensions to compensation for war victims, than the city-dwelling, backsliding representatives of the people?

Who cares about solving hunger in Nepal? Who’s thinking about ways to bring drinking water to all of the population? Who jumps fastest when there’s an epidemic? Who provides relief materials when there’s a flood? Is it the Nepali government officials on the frontlines, or do we see again the foreign hand?

Our politicians have a field day blaming everything on the foreign hand. No doubt that hand is so large its shadow can be seen everywhere. But why, you may ask, is it like this? Is it simply the money? If that were so, why wouldn’t the biggest donors have the biggest footprints? But often its less of the big money and more of the heart that seems to aggravate the politicians and the Kathmandu elite. World Food Program gives food to poor people? Lets blame it for the diahorea epidemic. Spanish people adopt street children? Lets blame them for trafficking. You can extend the analogy further--Indian government gives money for road building? Lets blame it for imperialism. American government gives money to spread democratic dialogue? Lets blame it for anarchy.

One reason donors are so powerful is that they actually listen to grievances. So there’s domestic violence? Instead of saying, “This is how it is in Nepal. Husbands beat wives. Its our culture,” some donor is likely to slap down a hundred thousand dollars to build a home for abused women. And why would that abused woman want to go to a politician who told her, “go home, this is how it is in our culture?” Surely her true representative is the people who actually listened to her grievance? Is that, after all, what politicians are supposed to do—make policy, bring laws into existence, change the culture?

No doubt the foreign hands themselves are divided. There may be more than one outfit operating from the same country. One could give, the other could take away. Noone can say these arms of foreign governments are united or share a common vision or purpose. Lets leave that aside for the moment. What appears more pertinent that every failure of our politicians seem to have an easy answer in foreign meddling. But there is no easy answer about why the foreigners still need to meddle in issues as essential as food, water, electricity, health and education. Surely that’s the work of the Nepali government, its officials and political representatives who claim to represent their constituency? Surely they should be thinking about providing these essential services, instead of waiting, with equal rancor and hope, that some other nation will feed their people?

Until and unless the political spectrum starts to work for the people they claim to represent (instead of wasting time trying to grab power through useless shufflings of one political clique after another), than the power will continue to reside in the foreign hand. Power doesn’t just lie in money. It also lies in the faith that people put in institutions and individuals. It is earned from hard work, and it comes from the investment one has shown over the years. Unfortunately, the balance of power earned by the dreaded foreign hand versus the rickety Nepali hand is very pronounced indeed.

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